By Feisal Omar and Mohamed Ahmed
Ethiopian troops backed by tanks wrested control of a town in southern Somalia on Tuesday from the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, officials said.
Addis Ababa sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in November as part of a wider campaign to crush al Shabaab rebels who control swathes of central and southern Somalia.
Residents said Ethiopian tanks, supported by Somali government soldiers, rolled into Yurkud town after a brief gunbattle with members of al Shabaab who are fighting to topple the Western-backed government of the Horn of Africa country.
Yurkud, a strategic town that links Bakool, Bay and Gedo regions of the lawless country, is about 110 km (70 km) northwest of Baidoa, a stronghold of the rebel group.
“We have captured Yurkud town, our objective is to secure Bay and Bakool regions,” Abdifatah Mohamed, a commander of the Somali government forces told Reuters by phone from Yurkud.
“With the help of Ethiopian troops we are determined to oust al Shabaab. They attacked us and we repulsed them. Now we have advanced from Yurkud, Baidoa is now only 85 km away.”
Al Shabaab confirmed the capture of Yurkud.
“Ethiopian troops are now at Yurkud after fierce fighting this morning. We burnt two of their military lorries,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab’s military operation told Reuters from a location in southern Somalia.
“We attacked them this afternoon again – we shall continue fighting until we oust Ethiopians from our country.”
On New Year’s Eve, Ethiopian troops captured the Somali border town of Baladwayne from al Shabaab, who Kenyan troops have also been battling since last October.
At the time, Ethiopia said it was willing to expand its operation beyond Baladwayne if Somalia’s government asked for backing.
Residents of Yarkud said they fled after the Ethiopian tanks approached their town. “Most of the people have fled to Mogadishu or other remote areas. I have nine children and aged parents,” mother Safia Nur told Reuters from Baidoa.
Ethiopia and Kenya sent troops into Somalia to fight al Shabaab following a wave of cross-border attacks and kidnappings Nairobi blamed on the group.
Britain hopes to build on the modest security gains in Mogadishu and in southern Somalia when it hosts a conference in London on Thursday.
Al Shabaab, which wants to impose its harsh interpretation of sharia, the Islamic moral and legal code, relinquished control of the coastal capital of Mogadishu in August, under pressure from the U.N. peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which is made up of Ugandan and Burundian troops.
The U.N. Security Council may vote this week to bolster AMISOM’s numbers, with Kenya hoping to integrate its forces.
AMISOM has been in Somalia since 2007 and confined to fighting al Shabaab in Mogadishu . Having Kenya on board would mean it would spread its mandate to the south.
“AMISOM now has the opportunity to contribute to a multi-front operation to stabilise the situation in Somalia,” the United States Special Representative for Somalia, Ambassador James Swan, said in a statement.
“To this end, we support in principle an expansion of AMISOM’s mandate and a commensurate increase in its force levels, along with force enablers.”
Somalia plunged into chaos in 1991 after dictator Siad Barre was toppled by warlords. (Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Alison Williams).